Necronautilus – A Review

In Necronautilus, “players act as souls bound to clouds of noxious gas called Death Agents, exploring a universe outside of time consisting of planets full of creatures who ended up there when they died. While using their Words of Power to act on behalf of the blind god Death and maintain order in a post-death galaxy, they’ll see their powers grow and splinter while exploring the corporeal life they left behind.”

The above pitch, and cover art basically sold me on this one. Trippy, high concept, goth, sci-fi rpg. I’m down. I backed the kickstarter and got a neat alt cover of the book, with metallic embossing, available on their site. It’s a great piece to have in the stack of RPGs when folks are hanging out and browsing through books. “What’s this Krusk?” they ask, and I get to grin, nod and explain it. Essentially, it gets to sit right between MÖRK BORG and Space Madness! on my shelf of games I really want to play, but have to find the right group for. Which is kind of funny, as its almost a fusion of the two.

For a small books, it is hardback, and surprisingly well put together. Especially considering its an RPG you can get for $25. As a backer, I also got a .txt version of the game, which is really handy. The books layout itself is gorgeous, but it’s an art piece. You can’t copy+paste from the PDF to send a rules question/answer to your GM easily, but a .txt file is no problem. I imagine it would also help if you use screen assist tech to read an ebook too. It also came with digital copies of the character sheet, ship sheet, and Stellar Remnants expansion zine. You can find a lot of this on their itch page.

In Necronautilus, Death Agents use Words as a form of advancement and as their defining character traits. Agents can say words to alter the story, to change the state of the world galaxy. They start play with 3 and they are usually things like Graceful, Emerald, or Candles. Agent’s can gain additional words through play, and can lose access to words as they explore. In addition, your words change over time. If you roll under, you unlock a Memory and you recall bits of experiences that help you improve your situation. If you roll over, you increase your TN, and add affixes, letters or words to your word to make a new word. If you roll exactly on, you succeed greatly. Then erase the word, and write a new word of power using the remaining letters. It gets very subjective, and the game is naturally going to explore a lot of emotions and associations. The examples of play on page 30/31 spell it out and show you how a session is intended to go. I really like the freeform word association with powers, and think this is an RPG that’s going to push GMs and players to develop improv and roleplaying skills.

I’m skimming a lot of the mechanics to play (go buy the book), but I’m also not skimming as much as you may think. A lot of the game is a form of free word association with powers. Their crowbar example is a great one. A fissure opens under a foe, and the Agent uses their Crowbar word to manifest a crowbar, prying it wider. Critical success, the monster falls, and then the player reorganizes their Word, adding Cobra to their list of words.

The other major mechanical “thing” in Necronautilus is the Nautilus. Not to be confused with the top tier animal, this is the spaceship your Agents use to sail the galaxy. Because Agents cannot remove objects from worlds (you are a cloud of gas), the Nautilus is outfitted with a word from each Agent. With the Word system, your ship will change throughout play, and probably session to session. Otherwise, it is played as an amalgam player character who doesn’t accrue memories and can’t use items. Instead, each module is assigned a wheel (think health tracker for the monsters in this game) which is filled in or depleted as it’s used. This means words are a little more static for a Nautilus than a player, but still way more fluid than I imagine when thinking of a spaceship.

By its nature, Necronautilus is going to reveal things about players and their association of words and what they mean. The book opens with a lot of safety tools up front, and makes setting expectations up front a priority. I’m not an expert on them all, but some were reprints of classics, like an Open Door, while others were new to me. Like the CATS system for setting expectations. Good stuff all around. Since Necronautilus is so rules light, I assume it’s going to end up being more approachable for the RPG adjacent who are interested in trying the concept out. Maybe not your wargamer who is used to books upon books, but the friend who likes hearing stories about games, but is also terrified of math. Including these sort of safety tips at the front is a nice heads up to them, and reminder to normalize this sort of thing to those of us “who know how to do it already, just give me the rules”.

Without calling out every section, I really liked the chapter on GM principles. While this can often be boiled down to “Don’t be a dick”, it turns out that language is broad and subjective. Some people aren’t dicks on purpose, and others think they are doing good things and are misguided. Others are actually dicks, and a couple pages in some indie rpg won’t change that, but hey, let’s break it down and spell it out for everyone else. A choice quote from this passage, that I’ve pushed for a long time, is Being GM does not remove you from responsibility to curate fun, nor does it force all the responsibility on your shoulders – every player is responsible for every one else’s enjoyment. It’s a foundation of my GM and player style and its shocking or strange for a lot of TTRPG fans. Especially some of the ones from back in the day. Included are some other concepts as well, Act as a Conductor, Be a fan of the characters, Ask players questions, Make the action bombastic, and Be a friend. Overall, reading it, the role of the GM in a Necronautilus game is clearly spelled out, and a lot of these tips should come into play for other games as well.

To sum up, this is a really nice rules light RPG. Innovative word play mechanics are tightly woven to quick to resolve rules in a way that enhances the central theme, and the central theme is right in my crosshairs of “cool stuff”. I highly recommend you pick up a copy.

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